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21st Century Organized Crime

[ 66 ] November 11, 2014 |

With civil asset forfeiture, the real organized crime in this country these days is not the Mafia, it’s the police. Or certain police departments anyway that self-fund by stealing your stuff whether or not you have actually committed a drug crime:

The seminars offered police officers some useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals. Don’t bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers (“everybody’s got one already”), the experts counseled. Do go after flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.

In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called them “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”

Mr. Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

The practice of civil forfeiture has come under fire in recent months, amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights. In one oft-cited case, a Philadelphia couple’s home was seized after their son made $40 worth of drug sales on the porch. Despite that opposition, many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets. The seminars, some of which were captured on video, raise a curtain on how law enforcement officials view the practice.

From Orange County, N.Y., to Rio Rancho, N.M., forfeiture operations are being established or expanded. In September, Albuquerque, which has long seized the cars of suspected drunken drivers, began taking them from men suspected of trying to pick up prostitutes, landing seven cars during a one-night sting. Arkansas has expanded its seizure law to allow the police to take cash and assets with suspected connections to terrorism, and Illinois moved to make boats fair game under its D.W.I. laws, in addition to cars. In Mercer County, N.J., a prosecutor preaches the “gospel” that forfeiture is not just for drug arrests — cars can be seized in shoplifting and statutory rape cases as well.

And if you are found not guilty of these crimes, do you get your stuff back? Ha ha ha. Of course not.

This obviously should be illegal and I’m glad there is push back growing. But at the same time, police departments are looking to increase their seizures. It’s a plague that must stop.

Another gift from the War on Drugs. Just Say No kids!


Everybody Wins

[ 228 ] November 10, 2014 |

A friend altered me to this highlight of American culinary history.


The definition of everybody winning is hot cocktail sauce.

The Only Progressive Choice in 2016

[ 76 ] November 10, 2014 |

Rand Paul: thinking person’s choice as political leader:

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) wrote the foreword for a new book from Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano. Napolitano has promoted 9-11 conspiracy theories, attacked President Abraham Lincoln, and defended a former Paul aide with “neo-Confederate” and “pro-secessionist” views.

Napolitano’s Suicide Pact: The Radical Expansion of Presidential Powers and the Assault on Civil Liberties is described by publisher Thomas Nelson as “a shocking chronicle of America’s descent from a free society to a frightening surveillance state.”

In the foreword, Paul writes, “Now President Obama says he just wants to ‘balance’ liberty and national security. Judge Napolitano succinctly answers President Obama. To Napolitano, it isn’t possible to balance rights and security because ‘rights and [national security] are essentially and metaphysically so different that they cannot be balanced against each other.”

Paul praises Napolitano for “unravel[ing] the labyrinthine assault on civil liberties that has taken place as a side effect of the War on Terror.”

He concludes, “Judge Napolitano gets it, and I hope his new book will help the American public to get it; to wake up and mount a defense of our most precious liberties before it’s too late.”

Sen. Paul has engaged in a highly publicized effort to court the black vote for the Republican Party, visiting cities like Ferguson, Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit as well as colleges like Howard University to speak to black audiences. He has also spoken about criminal justice reform and worked with Democrats on the issue.

Yet the pundit he describes as someone who “gets it” has a history of downplaying the racial elements of the Confederacy while attacking President Abraham Lincoln.

In a 2014 appearance on Fox Business’ The Independents, Napolitano said he is a “contrarian” on Lincoln’s legacy and “bemoan[ed] the fact” that the president has been “mythologized.” He attacked “the public school establishment” who “would have you believe he is the fourth member of the blessed trinity.”

Napolitano accused Lincoln of having “set about on the most murderous war in American history” over slavery rather than “allowing it to die” because it “was dying a natural death.” He also argued that Lincoln possibly could have purchased slaves and then freed them, “which would have cost a lot less money than the Civil War cost.”

Napolitano even claimed that “it’s not even altogether clear if slavery was the reason for secession.” (The Daily Show later devoted a segment to dismantling Napolitano’s argument.)

Napolitano claimed that Lincoln’s prosecution of the Civil War – described as “government violence” — led to the creation of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. Napolitano decried the image of Lincoln as having “Godlike stature” because of “the demonizing of the south.”

Since Rand Paul has already stated he supports private businesses’ right to discriminate and segregate, the same arguments opponents of the 1964 Civil Rights Act used, though he now claims to not believe that, we can legitimately ask whether Paul thinks Napolitano “gets it” on race and the Confederacy too. Rand Paul can pretend like he’s not a white supremacist all he wants to, but not withstanding a few recent speeches made for political gain, his record his clear. The people he runs with and his own past demonstrate this clearly.

America’s First Asian Fantasy

[ 34 ] November 10, 2014 |


In 1846, Senator Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO) gave a speech on the Senate floor titled “The Destiny of the Race.” This fundamental articulation of Manifest Destiny and its sibling white supremacy not only justifies American expansion around the world, but reads like the nation’s first Asian sex fantasy. In part:

The van of the Caucasian race now top the Rocky Mountains, and spread down to the shores of the Pacific. In a few years, a great population will grow up there, luminous with the accumulated lights of European and American civilization. Their presence in such a position cannot be without its influence upon eastern Asia….The sun of civilization must shine across the sea; socially and commercially, the van of the Caucasians, and the rear of the Mongolians must intermix. They must talk together, and trade together, and marry together. Commerce is a great civilizer–social intercourse is great–and marriage greater. The White and Yellow races can marry together….Moral and intellectual superiority will do the rest; the White race will take the ascendant.

The van of the Caucasians and the rear of the Mongolians indeed.

Part of what Benton is doing here is basically providing an intellectual justification for the great taboo of American history–interracial sex because he so clearly means white men and Asian women while providing assurance that some sort of mongrel race like the Mexicans (which is how antebellum Americans viewed Mexicans) will not develop for long, thanks to the obvious superiority of Euro-American culture and blood.

I grabbed this speech out of a textbook years ago when I was first writing lectures and came across it again today when reviewing some lecture notes. Some other excerpts from this speech are here, although not the entire thing.

Sunday Evening Open Music Thread

[ 50 ] November 9, 2014 |

Since it is quiet here tonight, I might as well talk about music.

I had the occasion to have a slightly extended weekend thanks to giving a midterm and thus drove out to the far distant school where my wife teaches. In my world, that means listening to a lot of music. I know there are good podcasts out there. But none of them are as good as a good album. So I don’t listen to them. Instead, I listen to albums. And usually full length albums as opposed to what the kids these days call “playlists” what with their baggy jeans and the like.

So, on the way out there, I listened to the following:

Wooley/Rempis/Niggenkemper/Corsano, From Wolves to Whales
Rilo Kiley, Under the Blacklight
Akira Sakata & Chikamorachi, Friendly Pants
L7, Bricks Are Heavy
Wussy, Attica
V/A, Festival in the Desert (a collection of live recordings from the annual festival in Timbuktu, although I don’t know if it still going on with the whole violence and all)
Roky Erickson, The Evil One
Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home
Merle Haggard, Down Every Road, Disc 3
Bill Callahan, Woke on a Whaleheart
Bruce Cockburn, High Winds White Sky
Bonnie Prince Billy, Ease Down the Road
Sonny Rollins, Live at the Village Vanguard, Volume 2

And driving back today, here was my playlist:

Ralph Stanley, Classic Stanley Disc 1
Osborne Brothers, From Rocky Top to Muddy Bottom
Curtis Mayfield, Superfly
Herbie Hancock, Live September 1973 (some radio show recording a friend gave me years ago. As I attempt to reconstruct my music collection following the theft, I am really glad I burned this on a CD at some point)
Bill Callahan, Apocalypse
Pavement, Slanted and Enchanted
White Stripes, Elephant
Mates of State, Mountaintops
Flying Burrito Brothers, Farther Along: The Best of the Flying Burrito Brothers
Bill Frisell, The Intercontinentals
Townes Van Zandt, Townes Van Zandt
Irving Fields, Bagels and Bongos

Overall, a reasonable facsimile of my normal listening patterns.

Talk about whatever music you want.

The Paper of the 1%

[ 61 ] November 9, 2014 |

Kind of surprising to see the Times so openly admit is the newspaper for the 1%.

Anyone who looks at the style, food, real estate, or travel sections has long known this, but still.

Book Review, Christopher Morris, The Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina

[ 14 ] November 9, 2014 |

Now that one book is in the can and the other is under review, I have time to read again. So I will review the recent books I get through here on the blog, as I used to do.

Christopher Morris’ environmental history of the lower Mississippi Valley takes readers from the sixteenth century to the present. His central point is that Europeans entered a landscape where wet and dry coexisted, with an ecological balance that supported Native American civilizations, and strove to separate the wet from dry with ever greater technological inputs. In doing so, the French and then the Americans not only rapidly changed the lower Mississippi ecosystem, but also ended up severely degrading one of the most fertile and rich parts of the world.

For both the French and Americans, living in a wet land seemed uncivilized. The constant, if usually low-level, flooding, was akin to savagery and in order to maintain Frenchness or Americanness, separation from nature was required. This led, very quickly, to the building of levees and concerted attempts to dry out the land behind them. For the French, rice culture worked to tame this land and while the Americans continued growing rice, cotton became the economic basis for the ever more vigilance protection of the fields from the river.

But what Europeans found was that water cannot be fully controlled. Damming it, diverting it, channeling it–all of this provided short-term solutions to the water problem, but a force with the power of the Mississippi River strikes back. And when it does, if the pressure is built up because its natural release is taken away by the levees, the damage can be amazing. The most famous flood was in 1927, but the Mississippi has shown Europeans’ efforts to control it futile time and time again. But from the 17th century forward, Europeans sought to engineer the river so that its people could live on dry land without even thinking about the water. This normalized Louisiana and the Mississippi delta as dry land, making floods seem unnatural.

Morris spends most of the book describing these processes. The Mississippi is a young river, having only flowed in its present path for several hundred years. In that time, the river was the home of a tremendous amount of flora and fauna. He details how Native Americans survived in this marshy world, building enormous mounds that remind us of their presence today and thriving off the region’s rich natural resources. They shaped the landscape as well, but lacked the technological ability or capitalist culture to see the river as something that needed taming. After early Spanish and French failures to establish themselves on the lower Mississippi, the French finally succeeded when New Orleans was established in 1718 by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville landed at Biloxi and walked east rather than get lost in the Mississippi delta as his predecessors had done. The French slowly began changing the valley, a process continued by the Spanish during their brief occupation of the area after 1763.

The real changes came with the Americans. The expansion of cotton meant turning as much of the South as possible to its production. This came at a widespread environmental cost throughout the region, with erosion, gullying, and exhausted soils clear problems by the time of the Civil War. On the Mississippi River, floods could replenish that soil, but the ever-more intensive growth of the levee system determined to keep that land dry meant that replenishing rarely occurred, only when flood events broke through the technologies built up to protect the cotton.

This landscape was of course highly racialized, both before and after the Civil War. Morris discusses how slaves lived on the margins of this wet and dry world. For slaves, the marshes provided some level of relative freedom and independence; the ability to hunt for food gave some slaves a bit of control over their own lives. Some slaves hunted full time for their masters, others killed raccoons, opossums, and birds for their own dinners. But those declining marshes meant disappearing wildlife too. Morris closes one chapter by discussing Theodore Roosevelt’s 1902 bear hunt in southern Louisiana, which led to the capture of a single scraggly bear attacked by dogs that did little more than disgust Roosevelt. That story, the basis for Faulkner’s “The Bear,” says much about the degraded nature of the lower Mississippi by the early twentieth century.

For general readers, Morris’ last three chapters will be of the greatest interest. Here, he rapidly moves into the twentieth century and what he calls a “pathological landscape.” Three centuries of trying to separate wet and dry had created a landscape where tremendous inputs of pesticides and fertilizers were necessary in one of the most fertile spaces on the planet. Mosquito-borne illnesses became worse through this regime, not better, as standing water made malaria and yellow fever plagues common in Louisiana through the 19th century. Chemicals like DDT and 2,4D became crutches for policy makers to avoid the environmental consequences of centuries of river policy. Coastal erosion became a problem before 1900 as the Mississippi River was channeled to the sea, and as the people of New Orleans discovered during Katrina, this can have devastating consequences.

Yet unlike many environmental histories, there is a bit of hope here. Morris steadfastly believes that humans can live along the Mississippi in a relatively sustainable way. Looking at crawfish farming as an ecologically sustainable way forward, Morris shows how it mimics the river’s natural processes, which means more marshes and more wildlife, as opposed to catfish farming or cotton that have caused great problems within the ecosystem. The crawfish farmers also grow rice in this wet landscape, which builds connections between land and water. Rice fields and catfish farms can become water storage areas that help the region manage the floods in a more ecologically sound and sustainable way than higher levees.

Morris also compares New Orleans to Venice, St. Petersburg, and Rotterdam to note that cities and water can coexist if people see the water as natural and plan for it, rather than view it as an enemy to tame. But New Orleans has not moved significantly in this direction since Hurricane Katrina, nor has the federal government. In a state as devoted to capitalism as the U.S., the short-term economic and political gains of levees means that remains the answer to the threat of water. Yet even in New Orleans, new homes on stilts are coming up, a recognition that this landscape can and flood. Even recognizing that is a positive step toward a more sustainable relationship with the river.

But outside of New Orleans, a somewhat different equation exists because declining populations along the delta has reduced the region’s political power and led to real victories for a more ecologically healthy management regime that has included some natural flooding and rejection of some water technology projects. People are beginning to realize the water is necessary and positive steps have begun to happen. Again, the region’s depopulation has played a role; even in post-Katrina New Orleans, nature is taking back parts of the city, with snakes and alligators in brush replacing people and parking lots.

I suppose some readers might want more on the modern Mississippi, focusing on the oil industry and canals that have received a great deal attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But this history provides a deep background on one of the nation’s most important land management and urban planning problems today. Overall, this is an excellent environmental history with important things to say about modern policy choices.

World Cup Labor

[ 41 ] November 8, 2014 |

That Qatar World Cup is really setting a new standard for labor rights:

Thousands of migrant labourers from North Korea are toiling for years on construction sites in Qatar for virtually no pay – including on the vast new metropolis that is the centrepiece of the World Cup – in what may amount to “state-sponsored slavery”.

According to testimonies from workers and defectors, labourers from the reclusive state said they receive almost no salaries in person while in the Gulf emirate during the three years they typically spend there.

They work in the expectation they will collect their earnings when they return to North Korea, but according to a series of testimonies from defectors and experts, workers receive as little as 10% of their salaries when they go home, and some may receive nothing. One North Korean worker at a construction site in central Doha told the Guardian: “We are here to earn foreign currency for our nation.”

Shouldn’t there be some sort of international boycott of the event if it relies on slave labor. Obviously, FIFA doesn’t care, nor Qatar, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t raise a stink.

A Word for Student Activist Groups

[ 6 ] November 8, 2014 |

This little piece on the United Students Against Sweatshops chapter at the University of Washington reminded of the importance of these student groups in fostering young activists against the systems of exploitation that dominate our world today. There are fewer groups like this on college campuses than you’d think–I’ve seen not one iota of left activism at URI in my 3+ years there and while something could be happening that I don’t know about, I’ve not seen a flyer, chalking, or any other evidence. Yet these groups really can spawn lifelong commitment to positive change. The group I was involved at the University of Tennessee back in the 90s today consists of union organizers, community organizers, and whatever it is that I do. These groups are really important and deserve our attention and support when we can give it.

The Happiest Place on Earth

[ 92 ] November 8, 2014 |

They say that Orange County is home to the Happiest Place on Earth. For most people, that’s Disneyland. For a cynical left-wing historian, it is the Nixon Library. When I visited Orange County last month, it was my top priority to visit, way more than the beach (which was nice too). I was not disappointed.

Presidential libraries occupy a weird space. They are operated in association with the National Archives, but the museum section is usually put together by some sort of private group. That means that there is a real tendency for hagiography, especially with recent presidents. The downside and the upside is exactly the same–eyerollingly ridiculous interpretation of controversial events. Although opened in 1990, the Nixon Library is still mostly in the hagiographic phase, with Nixon’s partisans talking about how great he was. There is one exception here. The historians have taken over the Watergate section so that whereas I understand that section actually stuck to the claim that the 18 1/2 deleted minutes of tape was totally an accident, today, it says that Nixon was really wrong. It is however so detailed and confusing that there’s almost no way any regular visitor is coming out of it with a good understanding of just what happened.

For the sake of learning about history, let’s hope the rest of the Nixon Library follows into more professional interpretation. But I am glad to visit before it did. Because it is amazing. Now it’s time for a photo tour. Here’s the first thing I saw when I went into the bookstore.


The blue ones read “Silent Majority: Tanned, Rested, and Ready”. I was sorely tempted to buy one, but you just can’t wear that ironically. I did however get a “What Would Nixon Do?” bumper sticker for my office. My friend bought some Nixon Library hand sanitizer as well. It was very exciting.

The books available for sale? Only the finest in politics and history:


Prominently displayed is also the book by the next president of the United States, Dr. Ben Carson. Rick Perlstein? What are you a commie? Of course that’s not for sale. I’m also curious about that secret plot to make Ted Kennedy president. Was that the 1980 Democratic primary?

The museum’s presentation of policy is uniformly horrible, combining cheap and ancient yellowing displays, way too much text that no one is going to read, and right-wing talking points. Nixon was the true environmental president because he signed legislation that passed the House 372-15. He was the true civil rights president because Jackie Robinson voted for him or something. I won’t even bother with most of it, except to say that the My Lai section was “under renovation.” Yeah, I’ll bet. If I have to sum up the policy displays in 1 image, this discussion of Miranda rights will suffice:


I’m not sure the museum staff, who were obvious Nixon partisans, appreciated my friends and I openly mocking this stuff.

One thing presidential libraries often feature is the gifts presidents receive from other heads of state. So it was just natural to display the maté set given to Nixon by Augusto Pinochet.


Gifts from other really nice leaders like the Shah, Suharto, and Ferdinand Marcos are also there for you to see. As are weird things that people gave Nixon. Like this, possibly the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen displayed in a museum.


“Dear Dick,

I was hiking around my ranch and I saw this rock that looks like your head. I thought you would enjoy it.



Finally, there is the greatest thing ever. Out back is the helicopter Nixon took from the White House to Camp David when he resigned. And you can go inside! Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, but if you could you would see the amazing shag carpet that is preserved in the cockpit. However, you can imitate Nixon’s wave goodbye to the nation when he got on the helicopter. I don’t know that anyone had ever done that before; certainly the tour guide was taken aback by my sheer joy at this opportunity. This was really one of the greatest moments of my life.


My wave was so vigorous that my shirt got out of whack. I guess that’s my version of Nixon sweating during the 1960 debate. That’s OK, I can own it. Because I got to imitate Nixon’s wave. If I ever get kicked off this blog, my last line is “You won’t have Loomis to kick around anymore!” I’ve always wanted to use that.

After seeing this, as well as the bed where Nixon was birthed (look at this cute little baby!) we were on the way out when we realized that a wedding was about to begin. Yes, someone had rented out the Nixon Library for their wedding. Where the couple was going to take their vows was about 20 feet from Nixon’s grave. Now, I think we’ve all wanted to play a little Dick and Pat on our wedding night, but this was a bit ridiculous. This was the least romantic spot for a wedding ever. Although I hope I am invited to an irony-themed wedding there in the future.

Obviously, if you are ever near Yorba Linda, you need to experience this joy for yourself.

Gilded Age Cocktails for the New Gilded Age

[ 37 ] November 7, 2014 |

If we are returning to the Gilded Age, we might as well be drinking their cocktails too, which have become all the rage. That’s mostly a good thing as the austerity cocktails of the post-Prohibition Era have their place (I love a good martini of course) but do not explore the real possibilities of mixology (or cocktology as my brother thinks it should be called). Here’s a few interesting and simple ones. Note, this is the kind of thing you get when you have a Google Alert for “Gilded Age.”

The 43 Students

[ 44 ] November 7, 2014 |

As you have may have heard, in September, the municipal police of a town in Guerrero, Mexico where the mayor and his wife had close ties with the cartels kidnapped 43 protesting students from a poor teachers’ college. The fate of the missing 43 is basically known in that everyone knows they are dead, but not only the families but the entire nation is demanding that the bodies be found and perpetrators brought to justice. One body was found and the way of killing the kid is too graphic to be repeated here. Searches have not discovered the missing students–but have uncovered 40 other unknown bodies, reinforcing the terrible situation in Guerrero especially.

As Alma Guillermoprieto reports, the response has the feeling of the moment where Mexicans stand up and say enough to the violence of the cartels and the indifference of the government. Whether they can do anything about it is a whole other thing, but it has forced Peña Nieto to respond publicly, a pretty rare thing for a Mexican president. Terrible, horrifying story but maybe it will lead to something better in the long run.

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